The value of noticing

Noticing – taking the time to observe things – when you travel, is a way of enriching your travel experience. I have often told people that a camera has taught me to see. By that, I mean, I have learnt to observe more, to notice the light and the play of shadows, and from that, I have learned to notice small details that others often overlook. This, in many ways, is the essence of mindful travel.

More recently, I have taken to using a sketchbook, though I can’t really draw for nuts. But the drawing is not the point. When I sketch, I spend time really looking at my subject, whether a building, or an unusual machine, or an interesting flower. When you sit in front of an object for an hour, trying to capture its form with a pencil, you end up noticing details that you never realised were there. It can help to make sense of how the object functions as it does, or did.

Studies have shown that visitors to art museums and galleries spend on average just a few seconds – rarely 30 seconds to a minute – in front of any given artwork. This is a process that Worts (2003) has described as grazing. We seem to be in a world of ‘swipe left’ as we travel to exotic locations to grab a quick selfie, before moving on.

crowd in the Louvre

On a recent visit to the Louvre in Paris, I was amazed at the crowds who surged into the room to grab a phone or tablet photo of the backs of the heads of everyone else who had come to see Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. What was remarkable, wasn’t the popularity of THAT painting, but the fact that they surged unseeing past FIVE other Leonardo paintings to get to be part of the crowd, such as the Virgin on the Rocks – which has a companion painting of this subject by Leonardo at the National Gallery of London.

Leonardo-Virgin on the rocks [Louvre]

But don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against people taking selfies, or against people taking reference photos for later viewing, perhaps as a reminder when they are trying to contextualise what was special about that particular artwork. But it is curious when the lens is used as a substitute for actually looking, and in that context I wonder what they are getting out of the experience, other than bragging rights with social proof that you have ‘been there’. But have you actually been there?

I ask that because I have been wondering lately about the link between being and observing. About 100 years after Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa, a Frenchman by the name of Renée Descartes came up with the idea that “I think therefore I am”.  And that seemed to settle the matter for a while. But around 1980, another Frenchman by the name of Jacques Lacan re-phrased it, suggesting “I think of what I am where I do not think to think.” In this case, he is suggesting that being and thinking are not necessarily the same thing. We can be in a place, but our mind is elsewhere. How often do we see a group of people having coffee together, each on their phone deep in textual conversation with someone not present at the table? To outsiders, it can seem disconcerting, but despite the mediation of the phone, at least they are being sociable with someone, even if not their present company.

Underground train London

A recent article in an e-journal called Aeon, titled “I attend, therefore I am” suggests that we are what we pay attention to. The article, by Carolyn Dicey Jennings, describes attention as “what you use to drown out distracting sights and sounds, to focus on whatever it is you need to focus on.” This power of attention, she argues: “…is what helps you in moments of conflict more generally – moments when you are caught between two (or more) options, both of which appeal to you, and you are torn on which option to choose.” Jennings goes on to observe that the philosopher Robert Kane describes these life-defining moments as ‘self-forming actions’. That is, actions that form and inform who you are as a person. The movie ‘Sliding Doors’ is a good example of how these life defining moments can turn on whether or not you catch that train, or take that trip.

A Canadian friend whom I met on the Camino, Kristine MacMillan has written a poignant blog post about this. In it, she talks about the value of following your dreams. She observes that you can’t predict when you’ll meet Mr Right, but you can control whether you learn a language, or take a trip

“…as a nurse I often see people who have saved or worked hard their entire lives with plans to start living when they retire, or to take that dream trip in 5 years time. Then they or their partner’s health fails and they don’t get that chance. ”

Some might describe this as a philosophy of Carpe Diem – Seize the day. Kristine puts it this way:

“it’s good to have dreams, but for me living a full life is essentially a way of living your dreams as best you can in the now. I don’t really have much control over when I meet Mr Right. But I can control whether I want to learn a second language, bicycle in the vineyards in France, or go on an African safari. I can choose these things by choosing not to pay for cable TV, or have a collection of purses, or put off buying a new iPhone. I tend to view things in terms of well that such and such thing is a plane ticket, and I’m way less inclined to spend my money on it.”

It all comes down to a question of focus. A camera and sketchbook have taught me to see, to focus on what is in front of me, to look around and notice my surroundings, and to observe the context – what makes it work, how did it get to be like this? how did it come to be there and not somewhere else? And by noticing, I am informing myself, and becoming who I will be, informed by what I have paid attention to in the past. We are, as the French philosopher Michel Foucault suggests, the sedimentation of our experiences that form the bedrock on which I base my future actions.

So how do I apply this? Last year, on the Camino de Santiago, I was taking a difficult path down towards the town of Portomarin. Mostly, I was focussed on trying not to twist my ankle on the uneven narrow path, but I also took moments to look around to see where I was and how far I had come. On one of these pauses I looked around and saw an opening in the rock like a small cave, and there was water running from it into a channel beside the path. I looked closer and took out my camera. It appeared to have been worked and shaped by human hands using hand tools, perhaps in ancient times. And I wondered if perhaps it might have been a spring used by the Romans to supply water to the town. I asked several people – fellow pilgrims – about it, and not one of them had noticed it was there. It might well have been a sacred water supply in pre-Christian times, or it might have supplied water to Roman industry nearby. Noticing that, and knowing that there were Roman copper mines nearby, enriched my experience of that place, and has made me want to learn more of the Roman and pre-Roman occupation of this area.

Spring

In another time, another place, others have sketched in the Roman forum in Rome, or  at the Colosseum, and in the process have observed how the place functioned, perhaps imagining the entertainments performed there, but coming away richer for having noticed how it was put together, and how the seats related to the Emperor’s box, and how the building was there in that place to help wipe out the memory of a tyrant. For others, it was perhaps a selfie moment, or a graze past from a tourist bus, but how much richer is the experience when you focus and notice and observe!

Colosseum

 

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Rome – The Trevi Fountain and an ancient aqueduct

Just about everyone who travels to Rome tosses a coin or two into the Trevi Fountain (Fontana di Trevi) – myself included! Legend has it, that if you throw a coin into the fountain over your opposite shoulder, you will return to Rome. Such rituals have their roots way back thousands of years before Christianity, whereby valuable items were tossed into water sources to keep the water gods happy. Today it serves a charitable purpose. Around €3,000 or US$3350 a day is tossed into the fountain. In 2016 around US$1.5m went into the fountain, our own coins among them. The money is collected each night and given to a charity that supports homeless and destitute families through a special supermarket. And yes it’s against the law to remove money from the fountain.

Trevi Fountain

But the Trevi fountain is special in part because of the water that supplies it. In fact, there has been a fountain on this spot since 19BC and even today it is still fed by the Virgo Aqueduct built by Agrippa. It was the only one to survive intact into modern times as it mostly ran underground. Today, most of the water is recycled for environmental reasons, but the source is still the ancient aqueduct.

The fountain lies at the intersection of three roads – Tre Vie – or Trevi as it has come to be known today. There is a legend that when the Roman engineers were seeking a fresh water source, a young woman took them to a spring around 13kms from the city. The aqueduct was named in her honour as the Aqua Vergine, or Aqua Virgo. This legend is depicted in a bas-relief. The aqueduct fed the Agrippa baths for 400 years near the present site of the fountain.

Trevi Fountain

The Trevi Fountain we see today was commissioned by Pope Clement XII in 1730. He held a competition for the design which was initially won by Alessandro Galilei – a Florentine and relative of the astronomer Galileo Galilei. But there was a great public outcry that a Florentine had won, forcing a re-vote finally won by Nicola Salvi.

The main figures are Oceana riding on a shell chariot drawn by two horses, each led by a Triton. One of the horses is calm, the other tempestuous showing the changeable moods of water.

On either side are niches depicting Abundance pouring water from an urn, and the other depicts Salubrity, holding a cup with a snake drinking from it.

Trevi Fountain

The top is crowned with the Papal insignia showing the beehive hat and the crossed keys of St Peter over a plaque with a dedication to Pope Clement XII.

Trevi Fountain

Water is essential for life. Ancient Rome’s 11 aqueducts ensured enough water flowing into the city to provide for more than a million inhabitants. But Rome’s great strength was also its vulnerability – dependence on water supplies brought from 13kms away. The aqueducts were critical infrastructure. Most of them were carried on massive stone pylons that could be destroyed by war or earthquake. While there were springs within the city boundaries, the water was brackish. And water from the Tiber carried disease. But there was good fresh spring water just a few kilometres away in the Anio mountains. With the destruction of the surface aqueducts, the population of Rome declined rapidly, leaving a residual population among the ruins of Rome’s great civilisation.

Gradually Rome was rebuilt achieving greatness once again in the Renaissance and into the modern world. The Trevi fountain is one of the few working survivals from ancient Rome – a reminder that a good water supply is necessary to sustain us, and that sometimes our greatest strength can also mask a fundamental weakness.

Whether you are inspired by films like La Dolce Vita or Roman Holiday, or you are drawn to the fountain for the artwork or just to toss in a coin hoping to secure your return to Rome, it is worth thinking about the water that supplies it, and consider where our own water comes from.

 

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Bridges across the Camino and across the world

Bridges. We cross them routinely, often barely noticing they are there. Yet without them, we would have to take long and circuitous detours or make dangerous crossings. So I like to pause sometimes and reflect on the bridge builders, whether physical or metaphorical, and nod my thanks to them for making my journey easier and safer.

Many kinds of bridges

In my working life, I would, at least once a year, board a plane and fly across the globe to talk face-to-face with my counterparts in other countries. And each time I was asked, why not just do a video conference with them? Why do I have to meet them face-to-face? My answer had variations on a theme. And that theme was about building firm relationships between the people of that country and our own. It was only partly about the exchange of formal information, but it was far more about building trust. And that trust was built by sharing a meal, having a joke, by spending informal time with them. And in that process, walking a little in their shoes, and they in mine.

In many ways, the aircraft formed a bridge between our cultures, just as surely as if I had walked across a physical bridge from one side of a river to the other, as pilgrims have done on the Camino for a thousand years. As you enter Santiago de Compostela, you will see inscribed in brass letters the phrase “Europe was built on the pilgrim road to Santiago.” Similarly, I have written elsewhere about the painter Van Gogh and the way he built his own bridge to the print-makers of Japan – notably Hiroshige. The influence of those Japanese prints transformed how painters like Van Gogh saw the world, by literally gaining a new perspective.

Van Gogh’s bridges

I built my own bridge to Van Gogh’s work by seeing the bridges that inspired him in Arles (also a starting point for one of the Camino routes) – the railway bridge near the Yellow House, and the Langlois Bridge across the canal, as well as the Edo Bridge in Tokyo, through seeing the replica in the Edo-Tokyo Museum which inspired Hiroshige, and then Van Gogh.

pont de Van Gogh, Arles France. [photo Jerry Everard]

Pont de Van Gogh, Arles France. [photo Jerry Everard]

Why are bridges special?

Bridges are special places, whether a few flat stones used to cross a stream, perhaps placed in Neolithic times, or stone spans built by Roman engineers 2000 years ago, or by later medieval builders, and modern freeway spans and great suspension bridges. They are special because they help us cross over. They help us cross safely from here to there over an abyss or a raging torrent, across an absence of firm ground.

Bridges are a place between places, and once you step onto a bridge, you too, are, for that moment, in between. Once you step onto that bridge, you have left your safe homeland, and you are already on that journey to the next place, to another culture, or another town or village. Bridges enable you to do this despite the storm or the deep water, or the treacherous ford.

Where walls enclose “us” from “them”, bridges make more people into “us”. The idea of Europe was made possible because a very significant number of people had for a thousand years crossed national borders and walked as global citizens, until there was enough inter-mixing of cultures to enable Europeans to imagine an “us” that stretched beyond mere national boundaries. Recently those ideas have come to be challenged, with some talking of building walls, and others retreating behind a moat. So it was significant that Pope Francis re-emphasised that it is better to build bridges than walls. What he was saying is that it is better for people to be connected and to build understanding with each other, than to retreat into a narrow, nationalistic view of society. And the evidence of this lies on the pilgrim road to Santiago. So important were bridges to the Romans and early Christians that the Pope even holds a special title: ‘The Great Bridge Builder’ – Pontifex Maximus – or Pontiff for short.

Bridges on the Camino Frances

For medieval pilgrims en route to Santiago in Spain, the journey was long and difficult – even more so than it is today. There were regular toll collectors, who often charged extortionate rates – even though they were only supposed to charge merchants. There were many rivers to cross, either by treacherous fords, by ferries, or on half-maintained Roman bridges. And at times there were bands of thieves lying in wait at the crossing points for unwary and road-weary travellers.

Puenta la Reina

Puenta la Reina

The town is named after the so-called ‘Queen’s Bridge’ – Puenta la Reina. It was originally commissioned by Queen Dona Mayor, wife of Sancho III in the late C11th, as pilgrims had long complained that the river crossing was dangerous at the best of times, and impassable at worst.

 

Puenta la Reina

Here at the confluence of the French Way and the Arragonne Way, Pilgrims had also suffered from bands of robbers. When it was built, the bridge had three defensive towers, one of which featured the Renaissance image of the Virgin of Puy, or Txori (meaning ‘bird’ in the Basque language), which is kept in the parish church of St. Peter.

According to the Navarra tourist guide page, there is a story:

“…that a bird used to visit the image every day, removing the cobwebs with its wings and washing the Virgin’s face with its beak after collecting water from the river Arga.”

This is one of the best maintained of the finest medieval bridges in Spain. And it remains in use to this day – though just for pedestrian traffic. One of the remaining defensive towers can be seen at the town end of the bridge.

Roman bridge

Roman bridge

Not far out of Puenta la Reina there is a small Roman bridge, still in use today, albeit that it is in poor condition and is approached down a steep and rocky path suitable only for foot traffic.

Burgos

Burgos

At the entrance to the city of Burgos, lies the Puenta de Santa Maria which dates back to the C14th. You can still see the impressive Arco de Santa Maria or St Mary’s Arch – a defensive structure forming one of the original gates of the city, and part of the original city wall. This city marks the start of Stage VI of the Codex Calixtinus – the medieval codex on which the UNESCO world heritage route of the Camino Frances was based.

Bridge of Arre de Trinidad

Bridge of Arre de Trinidad

The medieval bridge over the Rio Ulzama (a tributary of the River Arga) leads to possibly the oldest continuously operating albergue – part of the medieval monastery and hospice of the Basilica de la Sanctisima Trinidad de Arre. The hamlet has been a strategic crossing point for the river since Roman times and the place is rich in history.

Puenta de Orbigo

Puente de Orbigo

Puenta de Orbigo is one of the longest medieval bridges in Spain, built in the C13th and crossing the floodplain of the Rio Orbigo. The bridge is built on the foundations of an earlier Roman bridge. The town on the far side is called Hospital de Orbigo. – the latter named after the Knights Hospitaller of St John who built a pilgrim’s hospital there. The long causeway leading onto the bridge is known as the Paso Honroso or ‘path of honour’ named for a jousting tournament that took place there in 1434. The story behind it is in the classic Romance chivalry tradition:

“In the Holy Year of 1434 a knight from Leon, Don Suero de Quiñones, scorned by a beautiful woman, threw down the gauntlet to any knight who dared to pass as he undertook to defend the bridge against all comers. Knights came from all over Europe to take up the challenge. Don Suero successfully defended the bridge for a month until the required 300 lances had been broken, and his honour restored. Whereupon he proceeded to Santiago to give thanks for his freedom from the bonds of love.” – Brierley’s Guide

This story may have been part of the inspiration behind Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Nonetheless, this bridge and its Roman predecessor formed part of the cattle route to the coast, facilitating trade and commerce along the route.

Santo Domingo – the Bridge Builder

Santo Domingo de la Calzada, (1020-1109  – Saint Dominic of the Roads – is said to have built one of the first stone bridges across the River Oja around 1044. He was known more as a civil engineer than as the monk to which he aspired, but his efforts in clearing forests and draining swamps as well as constructing bridges and roads on behalf of the pilgrims earned him his place in the pantheon. He, together with his contemporaries, St Gregorio Ostiense and San Juan de Ortega formed one of the first teams of engineers of roads and bridges. The story goes that they met together in Logroño around 1040 and decided to devote themselves to improving the path through La Rioja and Navarra for the pilgrims travelling to Santiago between La Calzada and Logroño.

By clearing the undergrowth there were fewer hiding places for thieves, the road would enable them to cross the swamp more easily, and the bridge across the River Oja completed the work. While there are historical records for the existence of Santo Domingo and San Juan de Ortega, there is little evidence that St Gregorio Ostiense actually existed – he appears to have been a convenient, if somewhat legendary, figure, to make the team a holy trinity.

Whatever the truth, there is little doubt that the efforts to upgrade the infrastructure in the C11th meant a safer passage for the pilgrims at a time when Sancho III was seeking to push the Moors further south and ultimately out of the Kingdom of Spain.

Sarria bridge

And with safer passage came pilgrims in their thousands, many settling along the road and establishing French towns (known as villafranca). And to service the growing number of pilgrims, larger churches and cathedrals were built – with particularly notable constructions of Burgos and Leon cathedrals – both masterful examples of French Gothic style. And in the process, they brought an exchange of ideas that transcended national boundaries, just as Van Gogh brought a Japanese aesthetic to Europe through a painting of a bridge, and in turn my own pilgrimage to Van Gogh’s places and to Santiago built a bridge between our modern world reaching back into the distant past.

 

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